The Many Facets of Folk/Ethnic Dance

By Richard Duree

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Dick and Patti Oakes, 1961 Folk dance has benefited us in more ways than we can imagine. The physical exercise alone has enhanced and preserved our health and active life style far beyond that of the vast majority of the population. It is not unusual to have active members well into their 80s in our midst, hale, hearty, healthy, happy, and dancing still.

The dance has created and inspired an appreciation for artistic and cultural concerns in a way few activities can. Our fellow dancers have a more understanding view of cultures which are viewed with mistrust and even contempt by less enlightened folk. We have been blessed with a view of the true heritage of cultures behind the posturing of politicians and aristocrats. We travel. We study. We appreciate. We learn.

To give the dance the true depth of understanding it deserves, we need to learn to view the dance as a messenger with a story to tell. That story is about the question: "Why do people dance the way they do?" This question and the quest to answer it will be folk dance's greatest gift.

To more fully realize the potential value of folk dance as both a social and recreational hobby and a field of serious study, its unique make up needs to be understood. Simply, there are four ingredients which combine to create folk dance which do not apply to any other dance form:

  1. The Ethnology of the Dance: Who danced the dance? Where? When? And why? What role did the dance play in their secular and religious life? Marriage market? Rite of Passage? Easter?
  2. The Character of the Dance: Often called "styling," now we ask "why do people dance the way they do?" This will be discussed in a moment.
  3. The Relationship to the Music: Interestingly, there are folk dances that are not accompanied by music and there are other dances that do not have a definite rhythm. In either case, the dance has a powerful control that holds the dance together in spite of the lack of musical rhythm. They are, however, rare exceptions; musical accompaniment is an integral part of the dance event and adherence to the rhythm is consider to be of utmost importance.
  4. The Choreography: The arrangement of steps, figures, and motifs. Though the least important element of the dance, this is where too many folk dancers focus their attention, neglecting the first three. It should be noted that in some dances it is considered rude and inappropriate to deviate from the prescribed steps, where others have no such limitations and improvised variations are admired and skill at the dance is an enhancement to one's social status. Whichever custom applies should be understood and respected.

Folk/ethnic dance exists for one basic reason — and hundreds of directly related ones: It fulfills or satisfies the aesthetic needs and standards of its creators. If those social urges that foster the dance are removed, the dance declines and disappears. Only those of us who love it solely as an art form and recreational hobby—and the occasional rare academic — are committed to saving it.

What are those aesthetic forces that shape the dance? Why does the dance of Telemark in Norway differ so profoundly from that of Seville in Spain? Or from Radomir in Bulgaria? For that matter, why does the dance of the Shope region differ so much from that of Novo Zagorsko, just a few miles away in Thrace? In Transylvania, why do Romanians delight in nurturing highly complex syncopations in their dance, while the Hungarians living in the next village are perfectly happy with dance rhythms in 4/4? Why are the Hungarian men's dances competitive, while the Romanian men dance together as one? Why do some Balkan chain dances circle clock-wise, while others go counter? (It's been offered that one of them follows the direction of the sun across the sky.)

These are questions that learned ethnologists in many countries spend their entire lives happily exploring for answers. They are questions that can give folk dance the depth that gives this dance more educational value than any other. They are questions that can teach us to "read" the story the dance tells us of people few of us will ever meet.

Let's explore some of the possible answers to "why people dance the way they do.

What does "u šest" tell us about the Serbs? Or the "verbunk" of the Hungarians? Can we discern the customary differing relationship between the sexes in "sevillanas" and "hambo?"

What might the almost total absence of couple dances in the Balkans tell us about their history? That the Muslim values of 500 years of the Ottoman Empire might have prevented the influence of the Renaissance of Western Europe? That the chain dance form predates that of dancing with a partner? Let your curiosity run wild.

This is what dance ethnology is about — the quest for answers. As one enters into the study of the dance, the questions will come with the knowledge. The enrichment comes in the quest for the answers.


Used with permission of the author.